Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs, and Excavations in Egypt and Nubia

London: John Murray, 1820

When Europeans “rediscovered” Egypt beginning in the late 1700s, they did so with most dramatic effectiveness when they did so on the stage of ancient Egyptian ruins. Tomb robbers, treasure hunters, scientists, archaeologists – over the years the names changed to reflect both the changing tasks undertaken by the outside arrivers to the Nile Valley, and the amount of spin control put on those tasks, but, for many, and especially during the nineteenth century, the lines between objective intellectual analyst and macho heroic superhero adventurer were fuzzy at best and often very hard to draw.

This was especially the case in the figure of Giovanni Belzoni. Born in Padua, Italy, in 1778, Belzoni had no particular training or even interest in ancient Egypt, its history, culture, or antiquities. Physically imposing, muscular, and very strong, Belzoni was a circus sideshow strongman for many years, and made his living performing feats of strength and being a shameless self-promoter. A failed business venture and a chance encounter in 1814 found Belzoni working as a laborer on a British archaeological dig in Thebes, and the rest, as they, say, is history. Remaining in the Nile Valley, Belzoni went on to become very successful at acquiring ancient Egyptian antiquities – through any means necessary – and, ironically, was responsible for several important early archaeological discoveries and achievements. Overstaying his welcome in Egypt, Belzoni ended up in London in 1819, publishing accounts of his adventurers and going on the lecture circuit, appearing before sold-out crowds. This excerpt is from his most famous account, the 1820 Narrative of Operations and Recent Discoveries in Egypt and Nubia.

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